No Time for the Dying Inmate Robert Hawkins wanted his life to end at home. In D.C., that wasn't an option.

Illustration by Max Kornell

Barbara and Deborah Martin would rub and wash their brother’s feet. They would clean his face, sometimes wiping vomit and blood away. If he was thirsty, they patted his lips and tongue with a wet sponge. When Robert Hawkins wanted to talk freely to Barbara, they adopted a sort of shorthand speech, what he called their “ropey-dope talk.”

It was their attempt at giving themselves a little privacy from the corrections officers seated nearby, ignoring for a moment the cuffs that attached Hawkins’ right wrist and left ankle to his ICU bed—and the fact that he might die an inmate and ward of the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC).

Hawkins had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last October while in a Pennsylvania federal prison. Doctors said he had months to live, and then soon it was just weeks.

Hawkins had driven a cab for 30 years, letting his daughters ride with him while their mother was at work, delivering groceries to his sisters, and sneaking late-night Chinese carryout to his dying mother. From his travels all through the District, he found a lot of secret spots. He was always showing the family some new place they’d never seen. The sisters wanted him to have one last ride home. They wanted him to die there. They promised him that.

“He cried with me,” recalls Barbara Martin, who he called “Pooh.” “He would just hold me, and say, ‘I love you all, and I miss you all,’ and he’d be glad when he get home. He’d say, ‘Pooh, I’m going to hold on. I’m going to make it home.’ ”

A lot of other people were holding out, too. Lawyers, case managers, doctors—none of them wanted to see Hawkins die in handcuffs. The lobbying effort started in the fall after his diagnosis.

The 56-year-old had served most of his three-year sentence, his first prison stint, for assaulting a police officer. Hawkins had heckled something at an intersection; whatever he said was enough to get the attention of a cop nearby. The way the Martin sisters tell it, the officer leapt on the passenger side door of Hawkins’ truck, gun drawn.

Hawkins’ nephew, who was driving the Suburban, panicked and pressed on the gas. The cop’s gun went off, hitting Hawkins in the upper thigh. The cop was dragged some 20 feet. He walked away with a sprained ankle. Hawkins had a gunshot wound and eventually a three-year prison term. Inside, his health declined quickly—first prostate cancer and then the pancreatic cancer.

By the time of his transfer to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., around New Year’s, he’d joke in letters to Deborah that any sick inmate who ends up on the fifth-floor unit dies. Hawkins got used to his stints on the fifth floor. He’d also grown accustomed to his various illnesses. They were matter-of-fact things.

Twice a week Hawkins had to catheterize himself. “Like I said on the phone I’m feeling much better,” he wrote Deborah on Feb. 2. “But come this week have to see how that kemo is going to be. It shouldn’t be that bad, but whatever the case is I just have to roll with it. Oh! Yeah! Been sleep all day except for them drawing blood, sugar check, and my vital signs.”

The doctors were far less optimistic. By then, the Martins had contacted Rodney Mitchell, the coordinator for the Public Defender Service’s re-entry program, about having Hawkins sent home. Deborah volunteered to take care of her brother in her two-bedroom apartment at the Greenleaf housing project. She had already cared for her mother and father before they passed.

On Jan. 18, Hawkins’ case manager at the Federal Medical Center wrote to Superior Court urging that he be freed under what is known as a “compassionate release.” She asked that the request be expedited due to Hawkins’ “time sensitive” case, estimating that he had less than six months to live.

A month later, a Federal Medical Center doctor and physician’s assistant provided more testimony for Hawkins’ early release, writing that “Mr. Hawkins has required multiple inpatient addmissions [sic]” and that “Hawkins’ other medical conditions are significant…Diabetes, Hypertension, Urinary retention, and previously treated prostate cancer.”

Hawkins’ letters home turned to mostly illegible scribbles. On March 13, he wrote from his North Carolina hospital bed just a few sentences, noting that he was still on the “5th Floor,” and ended it with: “I hoping you get This.” A week later, Deborah could barely make out his words no matter how hard she studied them.

In early April, after being placed in DOC’s custody and transferred to Washington Hospital Center, Mitchell began writing to DOC Director Devon Brown, asking him to release Hawkins.

On April 12, another doctor wrote Mitchell, stating that Hawkins’ poor health made him ineligible for surgery and that a possible bowel obstruction made it impossible for him to eat. “We feel the best medical option is treatment in a hospice facility,” wrote Dr. Michael S. Gold, his physician at Washington Hospital Center. “But he requires compassionate release from his prisoner status before he can enter the hospice program. I hope this letter will be of help in expediting compassionate release so that he can receive medical comfort care.”

Eight days later, Hawkins’ original trial lawyer, Bruce M. Cooper, filed a motion—unopposed by prosecutors—for his release with Superior Court Judge Erik Christian. Cooper reported that Hawkins had recently suffered a stroke and heart attack and that dementia had set in. He also noted that Dr. Nader Marzban, the DOC’s medical director, had concluded that Hawkins had less than two weeks to live.

A week later, Hawkins died in handcuffs. At the time, Christian had yet to even address the subject of Hawkins’ release. The judge declined to comment for this story.

Although Judge Christian didn’t inform the family or lawyers, he may not have had the authority to release Hawkins. With the passing of the Sentencing Reform Act of 2000, the D.C. Council abolished parole in misdemeanor cases, though the law and its implications for people like Hawkins remain confused. Though Hawkins received a felony conviction in his case, he was also convicted on a misdemeanor charge for the same offense. He could have been granted release while serving his time for the felony assault charge. But as of April, he was serving time for the misdemeanor and so did not qualify for early release. Misdemeanor sentences can be reduced only within the first few months of sentencing.

Hawkins, whose mixed felony-and-­misdemeanor sentence is far from uncommon, had been diagnosed with his terminal cancer well past that deadline. “Obviously this is a tragic case where, unfortunately, given the timing, there was no legal relief available,” explains Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus G. King III.

Channing Phillips, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says prosecutors tried to work with Cooper to get Hawkins released, but “there was no clear precedent for our argument, and unless the law is changed, the issue remains unsettled and murky.”

There are several District statutes that could have potentially addressed the case—either for or against Hawkins’ release. Says At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson: “It’s very unusual and very unfortunate and we’re going to look at legislation to clarify the law.”

Marzban, who wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the Hawkins case, says that he has had about five compassionate-release cases in the last 12 months. He says that once he diagnoses an inmate as terminal, he promptly notifies the inmate’s attorney. It is the lawyer’s job, he says, to initiate release proceedings.

Adjudicating compassionate release cases—cases that qualify within the time frame—takes on average 10 days to two weeks, Marzban says. Sometimes the process can be frustratingly slow. “If they go home an hour earlier to stay with loved ones,” he explains, “I would love to see that, but that doesn’t happen all the time. This is a system that I have no control over. I do my part, and I expect other people to do their part.”

Hawkins’ sisters went to see their brother at Washington Hospital Center about a dozen times—outings that were complicated by the DOC’s requirement that they get permission slips at the D.C. Jail facility for each visit. Twice, Deborah Martin says, she arrived at his bedside to find the corrections officers watching TV at a loud volume while her brother slept.

Through it all, Barbara Martin believed a judge would eventually release her brother and that he could come home. “There had to be a yes somewhere,” she says.

Hawkins’ sisters were not at his bedside when he died. At 10:30 p.m. that night, a doctor called and told them the news. He said it was OK for them see him one last time and say their goodbyes. When they arrived at the Washington Hospital Center, security denied their request. They had to wait a half-hour and call the jail before they could finally see their brother.

Hawkins was already in a body bag. His hands lay rigid against his stomach. There, Barbara Martin noticed, they were joined together with plasticuffs.

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